2. Through The Iron Gate

Over the course of the next week, Elros's family kept vigil at his bedside. Time seemed to have lost its meaning for him, and none could predict when he would wake or how long he would remain aware. He was happiest when he had company in his chamber, and his brother and children spelled one another to ensure that he was never alone.

Elrond welcomed the time to sit with Elros, even when he did nothing more than watch his brother sleep. When Elros slept, his face relaxed, and some of the wrinkles vanished. It was during those times that Elrond found himself beginning to reconcile his memory of Elros in the bloom of youth with the old man who lay before him. It was strange, he thought, gently caressing the white head. The more he gazed at Elros, the more he could see three faces in the one body. Even through the fine network of lines on the old man's face, Elrond could see the contours of the child and the youth he had been.

Elros gave a great sigh and opened his eyes. "Hello, Elrond," he said. "It is good to see your face."

"And it is good to hear your voice," Elrond said. "How do you feel?"

"I am in no pain, if that worries you. But I find that I have no strength left. It is a strange thing, Elrond. My body feels so light and transparent that I think it might fly away on a breath of air, yet I have not even the strength left to raise my arm."

Elrond smiled. "Then I shall raise your arm for you," he said. Taking Elros's hand, he raised it to his lips and placed a gentle kiss on the withered knuckles. "Your hand is so cold."

"It has been so for several days now. Perhaps it would be good to sit for a while in the sun and see if that will warm me."

Elrond surveyed the fragile body critically. "I do not think you could walk so far as the terrace," he said. "But I could carry you, if you think it would not pain you overmuch."

"There is no one in whose arms I would be safer," Elros said happily. Elrond leaned over the bed and moved to gather Elros into his arms. As he did so, Elros suddenly stiffened and stared past Elrond to the foot of the bed. Elrond followed his gaze, but could see nothing out of the ordinary.

"What is it?" he asked. "Have I hurt you?"

"Do you not see her?" Elros asked.

"I can see no one," Elrond said. "Who is there?"

Elros smiled. "It is my lady wife. She is waiting for me. I am surprised you cannot see her. Ah, well. Perhaps it is only for the dying to see the dead. Let us go outside."

Elrond lifted Elros easily and carried him outside to the terrace. He spotted a long, low couch and laid his brother on it, then sat down next to him.

"Ah," Elros said. "That feels good. The summer sun is shining. I do not think that one should die without seeing the sunshine one last time."

Elrond did not know how to reply to that and contented himself with giving Elros's cold hand a gentle squeeze. They sat together in silence for a while. At length, Elros stirred.

"I told you earlier that I was not afraid," he said. "I seem to have been mistaken."

"What do you fear?"

"Loneliness, I think. And darkness. And the feeling of taking my final breath. I think it is not so much death that I fear as the moment of dying."

Elrond gulped. "It will last but a moment," he said. "I think, perhaps, that I might be able to ease your passage somewhat. I have been learning healing with Gil-galad, and I would not see you suffer needlessly."

"Perhaps," Elros said. "When the time comes, I will consider it. I thank you for the offer; already you ease my heart. But also, I fear for you and for my children. I have never wished harm upon any of you, but I cannot avoid hurting you now."

"We will forgive you. At least, I will forgive you. I cannot speak for your children."

Elros gave a wry half-smile. "I think they will forgive me. It is I who must forgive myself. Already I have hurt them by my dying. Vardamir's pain is so deep that he will not become King. I think that he fears a dead man's crown."

Elrond's eyebrows shot up. "You were not to know about that. Vardamir was quite specific in his instructions to me."

Elros laughed. "They think I do not know," he wheezed. "But I am still clever! I have overheard them discussing it when they thought that I slept."

"You were always good at discovering secrets."

"That I was."

Elrond slid off the couch and sat on the warm slate terrace near Elros's head. "Will you tell me a story?" he asked. "As you used to do when you had discovered enough secrets?"

"Gladly. What would you hear?"

"Tell me about your wife."

Elros gave a long sigh. He closed his eyes, the better to immerse himself in the memory, and began to tell the story of the long-dead Secondborn beauty who had won his heart. Eventually, the dreams of his love claimed him, and he fell asleep. Elrond, lulled by the story and the warmth of the sun, followed his brother's lead soon after. They slept peacefully together, as they had in their childhood, until Manwendil arrived to take his turn watching over his father.

Elrond spent the early part of the evening in the Hall of Records, reading the history of this new land and of his brother's reign. With the permission of the record-keeper, he took many detailed notes as he read so that he might bring the history back to Lindon to be preserved by the Elves.

When he had finished, the sun was setting. Elrond decided to take a walk in the courtyard garden and examine the island flowers more closely. Upon reaching his destination, he saw that he was not the only one to have had this idea. Vardamir walked the garden paths, deep in thought. Guessing that his nephew had come to the garden for solitude, Elrond turned and was about to leave, when Vardamir's voice stopped him.

"Do not go, Uncle," he said. "I do not mean to chase you away."

"I had thought that you desired privacy," Elrond said.

"I have had my privacy, and I would not keep you from the garden. It is a lovely place, soothing to the soul, and I would not deny you that pleasure." Vardamir extended a hand, and Elrond came to walk beside him on the path. They walked in silence for a while, occasionally reaching out a hand to touch the velvety petals of a flower. After a while, Vardamir cast a glance at Elrond.

"How do you fare these days, Uncle?" he asked. "It must be difficult to accustom yourself to our land and to your brother's death all at the same time. I marvel that you have remained as serene as you have been."

Elrond considered the question. "Elros is still Elros," he said at last, "and he brings me joy even as he did when we were both young. We have spent some time together, and we have begun to speak of -- of his death." Elrond's voice cracked, and he took a deep breath to calm himself. "He has tried to explain to me what he is experiencing, but I feel that I cannot quite grasp what he is trying to tell me. Perhaps I will not understand until he dies, or perhaps I will never understand. But I see him facing this occasion with grace and courage, and that in its turn bolsters my heart."

"Good," Vardamir said. "I am glad to hear that there is something to support you. Father has been worrying about you. I feel I ought to have done more for you, but I do not know how to comfort one of your kindred."

"I do not know, either; none of the Elves has ever had to face such a death as Elros's." Elrond stopped walking and fixed Vardamir with his gaze. "It seems, though, that my brother has been doing much worrying in his last days." Vardamir cocked his head and waited for an explanation. "He spoke to me of his fear that he had hurt you irreparably by his dying," Elrond said.

"Irreparably?" Vardamir said. "How came he to this conclusion? His dying grieves me, certainly, but he is my father, and that is to be expected. Why does he worry beyond that which cannot be avoided?"

Elrond took a deep breath. "He knows that you will not take up the crown, Vardamir." Vardamir sucked in a breath of surprise and shock. Elrond forged ahead. "I did not tell him. He was always good at discovering secrets. He knows, and he does not condemn you for your choice. However, he does not know why you have chosen so, and he worries that it is the result of some hurt he has caused you."

Vardamir let out a long, wavering breath. "No," he said. "It is not that. I still do not fully understand why my heart cannot abide the thought of ruling, but my father has caused me no terrible hurt."

Elrond regarded his nephew solemnly. "I think you should tell him that," he said. "I think it would ease both of your hearts."

Vardamir considered this for a moment, then nodded. "I think that is wise," he said. "Already, my heart is lighter now that I know that my secret is no secret to my father."

"Go and talk to him," Elrond urged. "I think he would like that." Vardamir smiled a more natural smile than Elrond had yet seen him wear.

"I will go," he said. "I thank you for your wisdom, Uncle Elrond." He reached out and gave Elrond's hand a quick squeeze, and then he turned and walked back into the house, leaving Elrond to his privacy in the garden.

The next morning dawned clear and brilliant. Elrond's heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. Thinking that he would enjoy a stroll through the hills, he packed some sweet buns and a flask of fruit juice into a pouch and left the palace. The hills surrounding it were peaceful and green, and Elrond enjoyed the strange songs of the island birds as he ate and drank. When he had finished, he walked aimlessly for a while, investigating the trees and flowers as they caught his eye.

Too soon, he heard hoofbeats behind him. He turned, and saw Atanalcar riding up the hill towards him, his mouth set in a grim line. Upon reaching the summit, he dismounted and hurried to Elrond.

"You must return to the palace," he said. "Father has asked for you. I think that he will die today."

Elrond's ears rang, and his arms and legs went numb. When he swayed, Atanalcar put an arm around his waist. He guided his uncle to the horse, helped him mount and swung up behind. They rode swiftly down the hill.

"Does he know?" Elrond asked.

"Yes," Atanalcar said. "He told me to fetch you because he felt his death upon him."

Soon, they were back at the palace, and Elrond hurried to Elros's chamber. When he knelt down by the bed, Elros turned his head with an effort and smiled faintly.

"You have come," he murmured. "Good. There is not much time. The wind is high, and it is a good day for sailing."

Elrond reflexively glanced at the light curtains that hung over the glass terrace doors. They hung still; there was no wind. "I do not want you to die," he said brokenly, stroking Elros's hair.

"I must," Elros said. "It is my time, and I am content."

"But you will leave me all alone," Elrond choked out. "We are the Half-Elven. In all the world, there is no one else like us, for Eärendil and Elwing are long gone. When you die, I will return to Lindon, and I will be alone."

"You will have Gil-galad, your Lord and friend," Elros said. "And Father will still watch over you. You have but to look to the evening sky and see his star shining down upon you."

"It is not the same," Elrond said. "I will have no family left in this world."

Elros picked at his blanket a little. "One day, you will have a family of your own," he said. "A loving wife . . . beautiful children . . . My only regret is that I shall never meet them."

"A family of my own?" Elrond said. "Do you really think so?"

"I know it. Deep in my heart, I know."

Elrond sighed and closed his eyes, feeling the familiar sting in his nose as tears seeped out between his eyelashes. "I love you," he said.

"And I love you. Through all the long years of my life, you have been closest to my heart."

They were silent for a while then. Elrond furiously blinked his tears away, wanting to memorize every aspect of Elros's face. Elros lay quietly, his eyes wide open, gazing blissfully at something only he could see. After a few minutes, he roused himself to speak again.

"I have been thinking," he said. "Who I will have by my side when I die." He paused for breath. "I think that I must send you away."

The soft words hit Elrond like a cudgel. "Why?" he asked. "Why may I not remain at your side?"

Elros took several deep breaths. "This time has been hard for you, Elrond," he said. "I have seen the strain in your eyes. It would hurt you terribly to see me die, and I would not be able to comfort you afterwards."

"I am strong. For you, I can endure anything."

"That is not all," Elros went on. "Ever I feel your eyes upon me. I do not think that I can die under such scrutiny. And my time has come. I must die, but I cannot do so under your gaze. I must send you away now, so that your last memory of me will be of your own living brother."

Elrond bowed his head and sighed deeply. When he raised his head, his eyes were clear. "I will remember you forever, Elros," he said. Elros smiled.

"From you, I will believe that. You, of all those I love, will indeed remember me forever. That thought comforts me. Farewell, Elrond. Know that I do not regret my choice, not even in the hour of my death. I love you, my brother."

Elrond gave Elros's hair a final caress. "I love you, my heart," he said, and gently kissed Elros's forehead. Then he rose and walked slowly to the door. Vardamir and Tindómiel waited outside. Vardamir gripped Elrond's hand, and Tindómiel placed a steadying arm around his shoulders.

"Where are Manwendil and Atanalcar?" Elrond asked.

"Somewhere in the palace," Tindómiel said. "I have left orders that no family member is to be disturbed today, wherever they may find themselves. They have said their farewells, and they do not wish to witness Father's death."

"That event is at hand," Elrond said. "I also will not witness the moment. I will wait in the courtyard. Will you come to me after -- ?"

Vardamir nodded. "Yes. Someone will come for you."

"Thank you," Elrond said. "You should go in now. Your father is dying." With a last glance, Vardamir and Tindómiel slipped into their father's chamber.

The afternoon sun warmed Elrond as he sat on the bench in the courtyard garden, hearing the fountain splash. He did not know how long he had been sitting there. Time seemed to be suspended. There was nothing more to do but wait.

After a while, Elrond heard a light footstep, and his heart leaped to his throat. He turned around to see Tindómiel standing next to him, her eyes glittering. Slowly, she sat down on the bench and put her hand on his back.

"He is gone," she said. "He bade us farewell, then turned his eyes upward. His last words were 'My heart is with my brother. I will seek their fate now.' Then he closed his eyes and died."

Elrond sat numbly for a moment, forgetting to breathe. His chest burned, and he gasped for air. Tindómiel pulled his head onto her shoulder and wrapped her arms around him. Safe in his niece's embrace, Elrond cried out for his loss. Tindómiel tightened her embrace, and Elrond could feel her body shake as she, too, began to weep.

When they had spent their tears, they rested together on the bench, trying to accustom themselves to the raw new wound in their hearts. Elrond spoke first. "Where is Vardamir?" he asked.

"I do not know exactly. Likely he is with Manwendil and Atanalcar, for he went to break the news to them when I came to you."

"What will happen now?"

Tindómiel pursed her lips a little as she thought. "Vardamir will send a messenger to summon Amandil to the palace," she said. "He spoke with Father last night, and they seem to have reached an understanding. Vardamir will wear the crown and preside over Father's funeral and then pass it to Amandil."

"When will the funeral be held?"

"I think we will hold it the day after tomorrow," Tindómiel said. "We have never had a funeral for a King before, and the lore-masters wish at least a full day to devise and prepare a fitting ceremony. Will you stay for it?"

Elrond thought for a few minutes. "No," he said at last. "Elros sent me away from his deathbed because he did not wish for me to look upon his dead body. I think that, in the end, it was a wise decree. I do not think I could bear to watch his body being put into the earth. And you and your brothers should have the time to mourn together without the intrusion of a strange Elvish uncle into your lives. I will leave tomorrow."

Tindómiel gave a somewhat watery smile. "I would not keep you here against your will," she said, "but you are hardly an intrusion. I have been glad of this chance to get to know you, Uncle. Now that I have seen you and spoken with you, my father's life seems more real to me. I am sure my brothers would agree."

Elrond stood and wandered over to the fountain. "His life was very real," he said. "He was the first King of what is already a mighty nation. He has equaled the deeds of our father, and like Eärendil will pass into legend. But you and I, we will remember him differently. We will always remember him as himself. I think he would be glad of that."

"Perhaps that is what troubles Vardamir," Tindómiel suggested. "Perhaps he does not want the weight of living up to Father's legend. Perhaps he wishes to remain simply Father's son."

"It is possible," Elrond agreed. "If that is truly his wish, may he have joy from it."

Elrond stayed one more night in the palace at Armenelos. In the morning, he sat down with his nephews and niece to a light meal of bread spread with soft, salty cheese sprinkled with herbs and spices. The meal was a quiet one; Elrond knew that his sleep had been troubled, and he suspected that it had been true for the others as well. Instead of speaking, he savored his final impressions of his brother's land.

When the meal was over, they rose from the table, and Vardamir signaled to a footman to call for the light cart that would convey Elrond back to the harbor. He turned back to Elrond and attempted a brief, awkward smile.

"You are welcome to stay as long as you wish, Uncle," he said. Elrond shook his head.

"Nay. My business in this land is finished, and my place is at my King's side. But I thank you for your hospitality and your kindness to me. It cannot have been easy to accept a stranger into your midst, especially at such a time as this."

"You are no stranger," Vardamir assured him. "You are our Uncle Elrond, beloved brother of the first King of Númenor, and an honored member of the family. I will ensure that so long as this land endures, you will always be welcome at Armenelos."

Elrond glanced once around the halls. "I am not the master of any place such as this," he said, "but should I ever find myself lord of my own house, it will likewise be open to you and to your descendents as long as it stands." He stepped forward to offer Vardamir his hand in parting. Vardamir took his hand and pulled his surprised uncle into an embrace.

"Farewell, Uncle Elrond," he said. "You were never a burden. Your visit gave Father great joy in his last days, and I am glad that you came."

Elrond returned the embrace, then did the same with Manwendil, Atanalcar and Tindómiel. Finally, he stood back for one last sight of his brother's children. All four faces were different, yet each bore the stamp of their sire. Though his heart ached for the loss of his brother, it comforted Elrond to know that something of Elros remained in the world.

"I hope," he told them, "that one day, if I am blessed with children of my own, that they will be as noble and gracious as you have been. You are a lovely reflection on your father, and I shall never forget your kindness. Farewell."

Then Elrond turned and stepped into the cart. The driver clucked to the horses, and they set out for the harbor, where Gil-galad's most trusted captain waited with his ship to bring Elrond home.

END

Afterword

Many thanks to all who have read and enjoyed this story. The title and the inspiration both come from Albert Einstein's classic thought experiment. In order to demonstrate the way that time slows down as one approaches light speed, Einstein imagined a pair of twins. One, shot into space at light speed, ages only a little, while the other, left on Earth as a control, ages at a normal rate, lives a full life, and grows old. When the first twin's journey is complete, they are reunited and the differences in their apparent ages will demonstrate the relative nature of time.

I always thought this would be unbearably cruel to the twins involved. At least Schroedinger's cat has a fighting chance.

Again, many thanks, and I will see you later.